Strategic Horizons: When Generals Shape National Policy

Strategic Horizons: When Generals Shape National Policy

With large-scale U.S. military involvement in Iraq receding in the rearview mirror, and Afghanistan soon to follow, debate is raging over the lessons Americans should draw from a decade of counterinsurgency. This debate is unfolding in a wide range of contexts and from many perspectives. Of these, one of the most important is a re-examination of American civil-military relations, especially the involvement of senior military leaders in building and sustaining public support for counterinsurgency campaigns like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the traditional model of American civil-military relations, civilian officials develop broad national policy, then build and sustain public support for it. Uniformed military leaders offer private advice to civilian policymakers, but they do not actually formulate national policy, publicly advocate for a particular policy option or play a major role in selling policy to the public or Congress. Historically, military leaders who openly advocated policies other than the official one found themselves relieved or at least reined in. Their job was to provide quiet counsel and then to execute decisions made by the president and his top civilian advisers.

This particular division of labor worked well when there was a clear distinction between war and peace and when America's enemies were other nations with conventional armed forces. The rare instances when it did not, such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur's attempt to push President Harry Truman toward a more aggressive approach to the Korean War, were quickly remedied, always in favor of the civilian policymakers. But this traditional approach to civil-military relations has been challenged by the sort of ambiguous conflicts involving shadowy, nonstate organizations that dominate the 21st-century security environment. The result has been a long series of controversies and problems. Individually, none of them signal a crisis in civil-military relations. In combination, they might.

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